The Five-Book Atheist Canon?

I’m throwing this one out to all of you.

What do you think are the five must-read books on atheism?

I got this question from a friend of a friend who knows about my godless blogginess. And my first answer, right off the top of my head, was: Five?!?!? Are you kidding? Trust me — you need more than five. Five will just get you started. Five will just scratch the surface.

That being said:

My first reaction (after “You need more than five!”) would be to cite the writers jokingly referred to as the Four Horsemen: Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris. These writers keep getting cited over and over again, by countless atheist writers and thinkers. The most important books by those authors — the ones that keep getting cited over and over again — are probably:

God delusion
The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Breaking the spell
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel C. Dennett

God is not great
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens (or instead, possibly the anthology he edited, The Portable Atheist)

End of faith
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris

And then I’d add to that:

Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

But that’s just off the top of my head, and I’m not sure that’s really the best representation. For one thing, all these titles are very recent, part of the so-called “new atheist” movement. It doesn’t include Bertrand Russell, Robert Ingersoll, W.E.B. DuBois, Epicurus… anyone in the long, rich history of non-belief. And all of them but Ayaan Hirsi Ali are white Western men.

So, per the request of this friend of a friend, I’m throwing this question out to the sharks:

What do you think are the five must-read books on atheism?

And do you think the answer would be different for different situations? Would you give a different answer to a bookstore buyer? A librarian? A private individual who just wants to learn more about atheism? Would it matter if the library were a public library or a graduate academic library? If the individual were a believer or an atheist? I’m curious to know what everyone thinks; I’m wondering if I need to add still more books to my teetering “must read ASAP” pile… and my friend of a friend will be grateful. Thanks!

The Five-Book Atheist Canon?
The Orbit is still fighting a SLAPP suit! Help defend freedom of speech, click here to find out more and donate!

39 thoughts on “The Five-Book Atheist Canon?

  1. 1

    Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian.
    J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and Against the Existence of God.

  2. 3

    Yeah, not a big fan of Harris. I would strongly recommend dropping him and adding “Why I am Not a Christian and other essays”, a collection of Russell’s that I own and very much enjoy.

  3. 4

    If it were my list, I’d choose “The Portable Atheist” over “god Is Not Great”, simply because gING doesn’t have that much substance. I enjoyed reading it, but mostly because Hitchens writes damn well and I enjoy a good flame.
    For that matter, “The God Delusion” doesn’t contain anything terribly new, at least to those who have been following atheism for a while. But if you’re looking for a short list of books to give someone who wants to know what this atheism thing is all about, then it’s as good an introduction as any.
    Along the same lines, I’d recommend Guy P. Harrison’s “50 Reasons People Believe for Believing in A God”, which is exactly what the title says, plus explanations why those reasons aren’t valid.
    Likewise, Vic Stenger’s “God: the Failed Hypothesis” explains that the universe looks just as we’d expect it to look if there were no creator/interventionist god. I think it would make a nice complement to Dawkins and Harrison.
    So I guess I vote for
    – The God Delusion
    – 50 Reasons…
    – God: The Failed Hypothesis
    – Breaking the Spell
    – Infidel or The Portable Atheist

  4. 5

    I think some of the best books on atheism aren’t actually “on atheism”:
    5. Thomas Paine, Age of Reason
    4. Ingersoll, anything but esp some speeches
    3. Huck Finn
    2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
    1. The Bible (The best argument at least against Christianity)

  5. 6

    I think that The Portable Atheist (Edited by Hitchens) is the best first stop. It covers many, many authors on the subject. There’s something in there for everyone.
    Ayaan Hirsi Ali definitely makes the cut. I also think Breaking the Spell should sit there.
    I don’t think that God Delusion and God is Not Great should actually be on the list. They’re the gateway-drugs of atheism. They’re a way in, and they’re both good reads, and I’d recommend them. But they wouldn’t be the first ones I’d give out.
    Haven’t read End of Faith, so it doesn’t make my top five anyway. My uneducated impression of the book is that it falls in the same category as Delusion and Not Great.
    What have I got now? (Re-reads post).
    1. The Portable Atheist (Hitchens)
    – Wide ranging overview of some of the best prose I’ve ever read on the subject of God. Bite-sized portions, with something for everyone. This is the book on atheism I wish I had read first. Also, I find Hitchens to be a better critic and editor than he is an author.
    2. Infidel (Ayaan Hirsi Ali)
    – Ayaan gives an insider’s view to Islam, and dispels the myth that liberty and critical thought are fundamental rights for all thinking peoples, not just ‘Western cultural imperialists’
    3. Breaking the Spell (Dennett)
    – This book performs its title wonderfully. Not only does this book contain good information and a good argument – it’s also a brilliant case study of a perfectly executed contemporary rhetorical performance. Postmodernists may disagree with me on that last sentence, damn hippies. ^_^
    Another two… Hmm.
    4. God: The Failed Hypothesis (Victor Stegner)
    – Stegner is relentless and reservedly voracious in presenting the evidence and reasoning behind scientific atheism. It’s hilarious to me to see how quickly his critics are forced to resort to the right-hand end of the Debate Uncertainty Principle (below) when trying to meet him. You’ll never look at an argument from ignorance the same way again after reading this book.
    The Debate Uncertainty Principle:
    5. Letting Go of God (Sweeeny)
    – I have this as an audiobook. Don’t think it would work as well as an actual text, so maybe it shouldn’t be here. But I agree with Greta’s review of Sweeny. Letting Go of God is the work on atheism that I wish all believers could see.
    I’m really tempted to stick something by Nietzsche on there – Beyond Good and Evil is a good (ha!) place to start. I found Thus Spake Zarathustra to be a hilariously ironic performative rhetorical refutation (phew!) of all divine claims that rest on scripture. But you need a bit of courage and a long run-up to tackle Nietzsche, otherwise you run the risk of actually agreeing with him, which isn’t the point of reading ol’ Fred in the first place. Nietzsche’s not for everyone.
    I also want to stick Age of Reason (Thomas Paine) up there, but it’s probably too thick and heavy for most. Additionally, he was technically a Deist, not an atheist, so he only discredited the Bible, not Theism in general. That said, I found it as hilarious as it was irreverent. <3 Tom Paine.

  6. 8

    I also think it would be nice to see “Top Five Must Read” lists for books on skepticism, critical thinking, and/or the fallibility of human reason. Books like The Demon-Haunted World, How We Know What Isn’t So, or Mistakes Were Made.

  7. 9

    Distill all of atheism down to just five books? Sheesh, give us an easy one, why don’tcha. 🙂
    Much depends on the audience, but for someone unacquainted with atheism, I might recommend Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation instead. It’s shorter and punchier than The End of Faith, a quicker read that nicely distills his main arguments and leaves out the stuff that’s not as effective (like his vaguely weird beliefs about the connection between meditation and claims of psychic phenomena).
    I agree that Infidel is an absolute must on any atheist top-five list. Ayaan Hirsi Ali may well have the most incredible life story of anyone alive in the world today.
    An oldie-but-goodie is Dan Barker’s Losing Faith in Faith, which covers Barker’s own deconversion from fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, surveys arguments against theism, and paints a compelling picture of why atheism is a joyous, liberating worldview. I think one could substitute it for any of the Four Horsemen’s books.
    If your friend is of a more scholarly persuasion, I’d choose one of: Doubt, A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht (a great, if rather imposing, historical survey which shows that freethought has a venerable pedigree and was alive and well even during the darkest of dark ages), or Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby (similar, except shorter and more focused on America).
    Christopher Hitchens can breathe fire and spit venom with the rest of them, but he’s more of an acquired taste and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend him to the newly-minted atheist. A gentler, more widely accessible book that’s stood the test of time is Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World. It’s not about atheism, as such, but an invaluable introduction to the principles of critical thinking (including the famous “dragon in the garage” analogy that’s a subtle but effective jab at theism.
    And if you’re only going to keep one of the Four Horsemen’s books, keep The God Delusion. It’s a great book in its own right, but more importantly, it illuminates the origins of the New Atheism as a political movement.
    I’m not sure if that adds up to five or not. I think that’s the best I can do, though!

  8. 10

    I second “The Demon-Haunted World” and also sugest “How We Believe” by Shermer. Understanding how belief becomes part of our lives was part of my understanding what I really did or didn’t believe about the world.

  9. Leo

    I think you need books in three categories: Sowing doubt, philosophical argumentation, and somewhere to go next – Humanism. Some of these choices will cover multiple approaches. 1) The Jesus Puzzle, by Doherty; 2) Atheism – The Case Against God, by Smith; 3) God: A Critical Inquiry, by Flew; 4) The Best of Humanism, by Greeley, and 5) (on everybody’s list) Why I am not a Christian, by Russell.

  10. 12

    Here are my picks:
    Fogelin’s A Defense of Hume on Miracles. This shows how to make an argument against miracles that isn’t question-begging, which is a must for a coherent naturalistic stance.
    Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible. This book is both blunt and fair in its criticism of the Bible.
    Dale Allison’s Resurrecting Jesus. He would probably blanch at his book being on my list, but it is worth it for the discussion on whether or not there was an empty tomb that Jesus’ disciples discovered. Allison himself feels that the balance of evidence is that there was, but he lays out the evidence so well that you not only can make up your own mind, but easily use the evidence to come to a conclusion opposite to his.
    Gerd Ludemann’s Resurrection of Christ. Unlike Allison, he comes down firmly against resurrection, but like Allison, lays out his argument so well that even if you disagree with a few pieces here and there, you can still use his work to help make the case against a resurrection.
    Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained. This book helps show the wide range of beliefs that nonbelievers reject, and is helpful as a check against overgeneralization in arguments about religion.

  11. 13

    Yeah, I have to second Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God”. You said you wanted books, and LGoG is a stage show, but it’s quite good: funny and touching and and oh so human.
    I don’t know how much of it is literally true and autobiographical, but it certainly rings true.
    Perhaps it’s because Ebon Muse just posted a piece on the three kinds of theism and the approaches to take with each, but perhaps you should tell us who the intended audience is for this list. The best list for a Christmas-and-Easter Methodist will not be the the best list for a Baptist fire-and-brimstone holy roller, will not be the best list for a second-year seminary student.

  12. 14

    I look at it a little like I was teaching a course–
    I agree with previous posters that The Bible itself is a must-read atheist book–I could easily agree to Biblical education in public schools, if atheists could set the curriculum, because after you’ve viewed all the nonsense in the Bible and seen it for the Bronze Age cultural artifact that it is, it seems less wise, more bollocks. Certainly not a moral guide. (Although as a supplement to a large text, a little Hitchens and a little Asimov couldn’t hurt?)
    Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian and Ibn Warraq’s Why I am Not a Muslim are easy enough contenders. Sagan’s Demon Haunted World seems naturally and practically another sobering read..
    And then I guess Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis. Deliberately in that order, I think the “curiculum” would address first the myth, then the material, behind the God concept.
    The New Atheist popular lit isn’t quite as central to atheism proper. It’s like a set of theses nailed to Jello. I think it serves to bolster agnostics who think about ditching Easter Mass, more than enlightening the faithful to jettison their personal relationship with the oldest recorded imaginary friend.

  13. 15

    Well it depends on the asker (since that affects how they interpret both the question and the answer).
    For many – even most – christians my answer would be: There is no canon. There is no “must read”. Atheism isn’t like that. But if you’d like to get some book recommendations, I could suggest a few…

  14. 16

    I’ll toss in two–one fiction and one scientific:
    1. “The Red Queen” by Matt Ridley. This book is all about why we evolved sex and genders and the multifaceted ways other living things get it on. And why they do. It’s a mindblowing survey of evolution. It’s not as religion-focused as other books on your list, but it’s an amazing argument for evolution.
    2. Doestoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor.” Considered one of the most profound works of atheism ever to appear in fiction, it’s startling that one of the main characters is Jesus. The plot of this short story: Jesus comes back to Earth during the Spanish Inquisition to have a look around the place. The grand inquisitor finds him before he can get up to much trouble and explains in an impassioned argument why He isn’t wanted anymore or needed. The story upset Doestoevsky so much after he wrote it that he wrote the entirety of The Brothers Karamazov to counterargue the story.
    The Grand Inquisitor works as an article of atheism precisely because it posits a world with a Jesus in it, and then shows hos absolutely preposterous that it.

  15. 18

    It all depends on what you mean by “on atheism.” I someone has passionate feelings about those darned “New Atheists,” but hasn’t read any of their work, I would say that the top five books to read are, in order of importance:
    1) End of Faith
    2) God Delusion
    3) Selfish Gene
    4) Letter to a Christian Nation, 5) Breaking the Spell
    Bonus non-book: Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God
    Yes, Selfish Gene, because a lot of people who want an excuse to hate Dawkins rag on it without bothering to understand it. No, no Hitchens, because his book comes off as being written way to hastily, almost as a cash-in (though Missionary Position was pretty good).
    For top five irreligious books that are pretty directly relevant to modern religious discussion in general, again in order:
    1) Why I Became an Atheist (John Loftus)
    2) Why I Am Not a Christian (Bertrand Russell)
    3) Bart Ehrman’s “Jesus” book
    4) Why Evolution is True (Jerry Coyne)
    5) The Natural History of Religion (David Hume)
    I would include this book, though modesty prohibits it.
    Some others: if you’re going to include stuff that’s only indirectly relevant to religion as most people think of it, but still awesome, I’d definitely endorse Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World, maybe even Terrence Hines’s Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. And for imperfect books that will give a sense of the history of religious critique, I’d recommend Spinoza’s Tractatus, Paine, and Ingersoll. As I write this, I wish I could say whether Voltaire’s comments on the Bible in the Philosophical Dictionary are worth reading, but I never got around to reading that one.

  16. 21

    Apart from what everyone else has added:
    The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense: A Guide for Edgy People by Ophelia Benson, and Jeremy Stangroom.
    An updated version of the admittedly better Devil’s Dictionary, it is still surprisingly accurate.

  17. 22

    The most important books though aren’t books, they are a website –
    The skeptics annotated Bible, Quran and Book of Mormom. Surprised they don’t have the Talmud yet.

  18. Val

    I see Huck Finn up there, but I also like Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth. 19th-century snark by one of its best practitioners.

  19. JL

    I would drop Hitchens and Harris (I don’t dislike the New Atheists per se, but I don’t like either of those two much). I would also drop anything that is primarily New Orientalism, even if it is also about atheism.
    In general, I would stay away from stuff that is focused on one religion unless it I think that it would be helpful for a particular person. I would want to show people that atheism is great or that theism is illogical, not play religions off against each other. I might be willing to make an exception to this for Bertrand Russell, since Why I Am Not a Christian is so historically important.
    I have no particular canon, but coming up with a list of books offhand, I would include something by Dawkins, Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, Dan Barker’s Godless, maybe Russ Kick’s anthology Everything You Know About God Is Wrong. For parents, I might add Dale McGowan’s Raising Freethinkers.

  20. JL

    …and I realize that I too fell into the “white Western Men” trap. Unfortunately, while I know of blogs and articles by atheists of color, I’m not so up on the books. :-/

  21. 26

    The only religion I am exposed to is Christianity, so I shall restrict myself to critiques of same that are 1)not heretofore mentioned, and 2)immensely worth reading. ‘Forgery in Christianity’ by Wheless and ‘The Christ’ by Remsberg, both free on the internet. ‘Forgery’ is hard reading, but devastating. ‘The Origins of Christianity and the Bible’ by Andrew Benson is at Amazon. It consists of notebook size pages if that matters. The exposition of the non Jewish and non Christian origins of almost everything Biblical is impressive.
    The rest of my 5 have been mentioned above.

  22. 27

    I’ve read a number of the books cited here, but I see some that I either haven’t gotten to yet or haven’t heard of before. This post and the comments will be a handy reference when I’m ready to book-shop again, say in 3…2…1…

  23. 28

    Well, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens sealed my de-conversion so they’re essential to me.
    2 that are sitting next to them on my “shelf of honor” above my desk and not mentioned here:
    “Atheism Advanced” (and his earlier, “Natural Atheism”) by David Eller.
    “Philosophers Without Gods” edited by Louise Antony
    Bonus (cause it’s a small book)
    “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” by Andre Conte-Sponville

  24. JL

    I asked elsewhere for canon-type books by atheists of color and non-Western atheists, and got these, which I will have to check out:
    The Black Humanist Experience: An Alternative to Religion, by Norm Allen (a black US atheist)
    Anything by Gora (an Indian atheist and deconvert from Hinduism)
    Can One Know if God Exists? by Dr. Hector Avalos (a Mexican-American atheist and professor of religion at Iowa State, deconvert from Pentecostalism, in which he was a preacher and child evangelist – I have to look into this, what a fascinating background!)

  25. Joe

    Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby is a good pick. It also is good to toss in a personal account that is pretty friendly. One Woman’s Fight by Vashti McCollum is one I found very down to earth.
    I am not familiar with Daniel C. Dennett, but other top three are in varying degrees not for all tastes. I don’t find their negative tone necessarily useful.
    Atheism: A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini also is a pretty good way to dip your toes in the water.

  26. 33

    Richard Carrier has several interesting articles about early Christian history on his website( See especially “Was Christianity Too Improbable To Be False”.
    Carrier has a PhD in Ancient History and offers razor sharp insights into the beginings of Christianity. He also has a forthcoming book on the historicity of Jesus that is sure to be interesting and enlightening.

  27. 36

    I’d ditch the Hitch and the Harris (both highly unlovely, and very badly argued too). My core texts of unbelief have been Dawkins and Russell. Douglas Adams is terrific at pointing out the absurdities of belief with a gracious wit, and I’d have to have George Eliot’s Middlemarch for a gorgeously humane godlessness. And this poem by Philip Larkin ( is a beautiful example of finding rapture in the material world without a god hanging over it.

  28. 37

    George Orwell is a case of a writer who was perhaps a reluctant atheist who is often concerned about the consequences of humanity losing its belief in life after death.Selected Essays in the Everyman Library is permeated by his gentle atheism.The selection includes an excellent review of Wynwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man which was an atheistic history of the world which became a victorian best seller. Often racist in assumption reade does always have Africa at the centre of world history in all of his chapters it is a fascinating book and i guess an atheist classic.

  29. 39

    1. Ayaan Hirsi Ali (and her book Infidel) cannot be praised highly enough.

    (With the rest I’ll try to be more idiosyncratic, in the interest of saying something new.)

    2. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. Not a direct criticism of religion, but the book takes an outsider’s perspective on Christianity (i.e. treats it as a harmful social phenomenon).

    2a. The Plague/The Stranger. Heavier on literary depth than on humanism, but still great.

    3. The Blind Watchmaker, or similar. Of the introductions to evolution that I’ve read, this is probably my favorite.

    4. Feynman, The Meaning Of It All. Not the most entertaining of his books, but his most relevant to issues of secularism.

    5. “Ages in Chaos”, by Steven Baxter a historical account of the discovery of the age of the earth.

    Honorable mention: Hume’s Dialogues. But I was trying to be idiosyncratic, and besides, this one’s probably a bit of a trudge for many modern readers.

Comments are closed.